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To the Core and Beyond

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Posted: Friday, April 25, 2008 10:00 pm

In the blue waters off the southeastern coast of Japan, a drilling vessel pushes its drill into the earth's core. The drill bit works non stop, cranking itself past black salt water, pushing deep, deep, deeper layers of sand, clay, rock - and the unknown.

On the surface, a scientist leans on the ship's railing, gazing out to the seamless sky. With nothing in sight but the blue horizon, he stands in awe and starts to understand that what he's doing may actually save parts of the world.

The group of international scientists aboard the drilling ship, Chikyu, are part of a groundbreaking project that is aiming to go 6,000 meters (more than 19,000 feet) into the Earth's crust. Knowing what lies beneath the surface may one day provide a way to forecast or predict earthquakes and tsunamis before they threaten large coastal cities.

"It's absolutely making history," said Michael Underwood, a scientist on the project. "There's nothing ever this large that has ever been attempted in terms of cost, or the scope, or the complexity of the project."

Underwood is a sedimentologist who will be one of the first to describe the earth's core and its composition at such depth. At the age of 53, nothing that he has done compares to this project - not teaching, not working in the mountains of Alaska, not graduating from Lodi High School in 1972.

A passionate geologist since his first geology class, Underwood was handpicked to be the specialty coordinator of sedimentology on the expedition last December and January. "He is someone with an international reputation for (his) expertise and being a top-flight sedimentologist," said Nancy Light, IODP spokesperson for the multi-million dollar Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP).

After more than 10 years of planning IODP's NanTroSEIZE (Nankai Trough Seismogenic Experiment), the first shifts of scientists filled the four floors of the massive drilling ship currently located near Japan. NanTroSeize is a multi-year project designed to explore the plate boundary of the Nankai Trough region. One of the most active earthquake zones on the planet, the Nankai Trough is responsible for earthquakes similar to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquakes that killed more than 225,000 people in 11 countries.

The science party and crew during the first component of the NanTroSEIZE project. (Photograph courtesy of Michael Underwood)

Earthquakes occur when the Earth's plates slip, under stress and pressure. According to the IODP Web site, by drilling into the seismogenic zone and studying samples from it, scientists hope to uncover the unknowns about large-scale, tsunami-generating earthquakes, such as how far earthquake fault slip can travel up to the seabed.

One site at a time

There are four stages of NanTroSEIZE expeditions. In the first expedition, the goal was to drill different sized boreholes at six locations. Four were completed. One of the purposes of drilling: To get logs - electronic responses - from logging tools that are placed directly behind the drill bit.

For Underwood, the fun part is being among the first to find out what the earth is really made of.

But until he and his team complete the program, the Earth will keep its secrets.

"It's all hypothetical. We have ideas but the testing of the idea is the real purpose of the project," Underwood said. "Theory only takes you so far."

In order for drilling to be completed, the team needs to reach 19,000 feet in one borehole. Other boreholes vary in size.

"This is pretty cutting edge science going on here," Light said. "There are a lot of societies in the world who are waiting for this kind of information."

With the NanTroSEIZE project, Underwood is one of few people in the world who get to be part of answering one of the fundamental questions in seismology, or earthquake science.

"Fault and earthquake sciences are one of the most important unanswered questions as to under what circumstances earthquakes will really happen," he said. "The exciting part is finding out what material properties are in place now - we've never been able to do that before."

What scientists do know is that earthquakes don't occur at shallow depths because material is too weak. At some point, the properties change, but why and how is what they aim to learn through NanTroSEIZE.

Even though it will take many years to complete the four stages - permanent observatory systems built into the ultra deep borehole and earthquake forecasts - Underwood is humbled and excited to be part of history in the making.

The aspiring scientist

Though he can't imagine doing anything else, Underwood didn't always know science was in his future.

Underwood spent his entire childhood in Lodi. He played all the sports he could until high school, when his wrestling and football teammates passed him up in size.

"I started getting killed," laughs the former running back and linebacker.

Instead, he caused a scandal and dated a senior when he was only a junior.

His father was the longtime News-Sentinel sports editor Carl Underwood, and his mother, Judy Underwood, was the editor of the society section. They spent family vacations on the beaches of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe. He didn't know that his adolescent interest in the outdoors would lead him to his career as a geologist and scientist.

In a high school marine biology class, Underwood found something that interested him.

He traded in his lifelong Lodi residence for an undergraduate position on the sprawling, tree-covered campus of University of California, Santa Cruz.

On his way to a bachelor's degree in ocean sciences, Underwood was awakened to the many areas of science that high school didn't teach. Geology - the study of rocks and minerals and the structure of the Earth - captivated the young student. He switched his major to Earth Sciences, the degree where one requirement is camping and hiking.

Carl Underwood recalls how passionate his son was after taking a a beginning geology class at UC Santa Cruz. He knew then that Mike Underwood was going to strive to be a great geologist.

"There are no limits on what he tries to do," said Carl Underwood. "Anything he tries, he wants to be the best he can be."

Michael Underwood attended graduate school at Cornell University. With experience working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Underwood had no trouble getting a teaching position at University of Missouri.

In between NanTroSEIZE expeditions, Underwood still teaches classes ranging from four students to lecture halls of 300 students trying to get their general education requirements out of the way.

Even in his time off, he finds himself outdoors, hiking, skiing and camping with his wife and Lodi High sweetheart, Gail Flaherty, with whom he has two grown children.

How well do you know your geology slang?

Subduction zone

An area where two techtonic plates meet and move toward one another, with one sliding underneath the other and moving into the mantle. An oceanic plate ordinarily slides underneath a continental plate, creating a mountain-building zone with many volcanos and earthquakes.

Seismogenic zone

The range of depths within the crust or lithosphere over which most earthquakes are initiated.


An interplate earthquake that occurs when one tectonic plate slips beneath another. Due to the size of the tectonic plates and the shallow dip of the plate boundary, these earthquakes are the world's largest, with "moment magnitudes" that can exceed 9.0.

Did you know … ?

60 percent of the global population lives along the coast

A worst-case scenario estimates more than 10,000 deaths in a single earthquake. Also, 60 percent of the global population lives within 31 miles of the coast, and 75 percent of coastal cities have a population of at least 2 million.

A new kind of 'slow earthquake'

Recently, very-low-frequency earthquakes were discovered and observed in the Nankai Trough area. However, the seismic waves aren't found in the frequency range of normal earthquakes. These earthquakes may provide important information about how larger earthquakes are generated.

All about Chikyu

Meaning: "Planet Earth" in Japanese

What makes Chikyu so special? It models the world's most advanced scientific drilling capabilities. It can handle 32,808 feet of drill strings (pipes). This enables the ship to drill more than 22,966 feet into the ocean floor in water depth of up to 8,203 feet.

What is the cost of building Chikyu? Construction costs totalled 60 billion yen (about $540 million U.S.), funded by Japan.

Source: Integrated Ocean Drilling Program

His interest in sports is still as strong as it was when his father took him to his first Lodi High football game when he was only 6 years old.

"His love for geology hasn't diminished his real interest in sports," Carl Underwood said.

Returning to the Chikyu

Perhaps the biggest challenge of MIchael Underwood's career is still ahead. On the upcoming December and January expedition aboard Chikyu, Underwood has been invited to be the co-chief scientist.

The expedition will complete drilling on the last two sites. For the first time, the group will used a medical-quality X-ray scanner to see rock and sediment.

"Just as you can see inside someone's arm and make a 3-D image, you can do the same with the core. You can see some things the human eye can't," he said.

With extra responsibility, Underwood also has extra stress. The program as a whole is already running into major difficulties because of the rising cost of fuel. It takes about $450,000 a day to run Chikyu, and 525 days to drill one deep hole.

Funding comes from many international science organizations.

It's an expensive project, but Michael Underwood says the importance of the project can't be measured by cost.

By monitoring faults that are capable of generating earthquakes 100 times bigger than the San Andreas fault can, the main goal is to be able to provide warning and save lives in the future.

"Eventually humans will be able to predict earthquakes at certain localities if they have enough information," Michael Underwood said.

In a few months, another team of scientists will set out to the waters of Japan. As the days come to an end, scientists from across the world will step away from the microscopes, switch the computers to sleep mode and stare out to sea. As the orange sun sinks into the glowing water, they will look to the whitecaps that hide the secrets of tomorrow.



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